Note: Before we go further, know that I am going to spoil essential elements to the thickly layered plot of this film. In short, if you haven’t seen No Country For Old Men, skip this post and Go. Watch. It. Now.
The scene occurs somewhat late in the film, moments after Tommy Lee Jones’ character, Ed Tom Bell, has shown up a few seconds too late to a motel gunfight that left Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss dead. Bell identifies Moss’ body at the morgue, and then has a cup of coffee with a local Sherriff. As Bell and the Sherriff part ways, the Sherriff speaks of the audacity of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). About how Chigurh killed a desk clerk at the Eagle Hotel one night, then went back to the same hotel and killed Woody Harrelson’s character the following night. “Just strolls right back into a crime scene,” the Sherriff says.
And then Bell thinks. He thinks, and, like Chigurh, he returns to the scene of a crime. Bell slowly makes his way to the motel where he discovered Moss’ body, fearing that Chigurh could be there, waiting.
Before I attempt to dissect the scene, spend three minutes watching it here:
So, my question is: where is Anton Chigurh? On a very basic surface level, the editing of the scene would indicate that Chigurh is standing right behind the door. Bell sees movement in the empty lock hole that Chigurh has recently shot out, and Chigurh sees movement in the same hole as well. But, obviously, when Bell opens the door, Chigurh is nowhere to be found.
So where is he?
The best resource I could find to lend explanation to this scene is on IMDb’s FAQ page, in which someone has gone to great lengths to shed light on the sequence. (Read it here if you’d like.)
Essentially, the IMDb explanation posits four theories, which I’d like to flesh out.
Theory 1: Chigurh is in the room and secretly escapes
When Bell stands outside the room, the cut to Chigurh makes it seem as though he is standing directly behind the door. But when Bell swings the door open, the door clearly hits the wall, not Anton Chigurh. But maybe Chigurh moved to hide behind or even under a bed, and when Bell goes to inspect the bathroom, Chigurh slips out of the room undetected.
Plausibility of Theory 1: Unlikely
As the IMDb thread documents, the reflection of the yellow crime scene tape can be seen on the far wall when Bell enters the room (the reflection cuts through the top of the framed picture):
When Bell exits the bathroom, the reflection of the tape is gone, suggesting that Chigurh left the room in a hurry and broke the tape on his way out (no reflection on the top of the framed picture):
But in the next shot, the reflection of the crime scene tape is back, so this, I think, can be written off as a continuity error (the reflection of the tape is directly above the TV):
Plus, I’m not entirely sure Chigurh would spare anyone’s life at this point, including a Sheriff investigating a crime far out of his jurisdiction.
Theory 2: Chigurh is in the adjacent room
When Bell arrives at the hotel, notice that the crime scene tape covers both room 114 (where Moss was killed) and room 112. It is unclear if Chigurh shot out the lock for room 112 as he did for room 114, but, according to this theory, the scene is nothing more than tricky editing. We assume Chigurh is in room 114, but is actually waiting patiently in room 112.
Plausibility of Theory 2: Somewhat likely
Given the gimmick of Moss renting out two rooms earlier in the film, it’s likely that Chigurh could be staking out the adjacent room. But Chigurh has clearly retrieved the $2 million Moss was hiding in a wall vent in room 114, so why bother hanging around in the next room at all?
Theory 3: Chigurh was in the room but has already left
This theory relies on two things: tricky editing, and lazy showmanship. The technique of editing two scenes at the same location (that occur at different times) is common, especially in action and horror films. You see a girl standing in her bedroom, then cut to a killer walking up the stairs toward the bedroom. Cut to the girl in the bedroom, cut to the killer walking. Girl. Killer. Killer opens the door and BAM, the girl is gone, because she was actually there earlier.
Plausibility of Theory 3: Improbable
My main problem with this theory is that it relies on a showy technique that is not implored anywhere else in the film. To use it now, for this one scene, just seems lazy. Besides, if this theory is true, why does Chigurh have the look on his face like he hears someone outside of the room and is likely going to have to kill them?
Theory 4: Chigurh is a manifestation of Ed Tom’s fear
Basically, Bell is imagining that Chigurh could be in the room. This scene represents the first and only time we see Bell scared in the film. From his opening monologue, we gather that Bell protects a town that has modest crime. Hell, he even talks about prior law enforcement officers who didn’t even carry a gun. But this series of crimes are different, and Bell is fucking spooked. So maybe Bell’s vision of Chigurh is a representation of the worst that could be waiting for Bell.
Plausibility of Theory 4: Most likely, but with holes
For one, Bell has no idea what Chigurh looks like, so how could he envision an exact replica of Chigurh? And secondly, like Theory 3, if Theory 4 were true, it would be the only time this narrative device (fear as an imaginary object) is used in the film. Which is fine, I suppose. Movies do that all time, but it just feels off to me, in this particular film.
How It is in the Book
In Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant source novel, Chigurh hides in a car in the motel parking lot as Bell arrives and examines the room. Chigurh watches Bell intently, until the Sherriff drives off. But Bell knows better. He knows that someone could be waiting for him in the parking lot, so he goes across the street and stakes the parking lot out. He calls for backup and when it arrives, they all search the parking lot together. Chigurh is nowhere to be found. So, again, where did he go?
My final thought is based on the fact that I always have and always will consider No Country for Old Men a masterful film. This scene in no way ruins the film for me, because, in a way, it represents what the title of the movie refers to. This crime is new for Ed Tom Bell. He’s an old timer living a modest life protecting a small town. He isn’t built for this kind of action. He’s afraid. And while he’s willing to confront his fear head on, he knows that his fear will likely never have a face.
But enough about what I think, what do YOU think Anton Chigurh is in this scene?